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Bristol of old rears its ugly head, shows Chase contenders who's in charge

Among the casualties in this midrace pileup was Kasey Kahne, whose No. 9 Dodge caught fire briefly. Geoff Burke/Getty Images

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Welcome back, Bristol Motor Speedway.

Just when many thought you'd lost that nastiness that made you the best show in the Sprint Cup Series, you bowed your back, showed your claws and reminded contenders for the championship Chase on Saturday night why this is such a wild-card race.

Three drivers battling for a playoff spot were sitting in the garage with mangled sheet metal, another was a lap down and another had severe damage to the front end before the halfway point.

Points leader Kyle Busch barely escaped your bite, having to dip to the bottom of the apron to avoid a blazing Dave Blaney while leading on Lap 292.

Tempers flared. Busch bumping winner Carl Edwards on the cooldown lap and Edwards retaliating by spinning out Busch -- who got invited to the NASCAR hauler for a chat -- is what fans have come to expect from you.

Some even got mad when it wasn't deserved. That was the case when Clint Bowyer screamed over his radio that "Michael Walrip is the worst driver in NASCAR -- period," although the multicar wreck that damaged Bowyer's front end wasn't Waltrip's fault.

It was nothing like the boredom that was created a year ago when your new pavement created two- and three-wide racing and NASCAR's new car took away the bump-and-spin-out-the-car-ahead-of-you-to-pass move.

Not that Saturday night's drama was all your doing. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who came here fourth in points, passed about a dozen cars before he reached the green flag on the opening lap to draw a pass-through penalty from NASCAR and go a lap down.

But Earnhardt actually moved up a spot in the standings to third because Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson wrecked early and finished 18 laps back in 33rd.

The seven-car pileup on Lap 216 simply was the result of poor eyesight by Casey Mears' spotter.

"Clear, clear, clear," the spotter said as Mears drove between Turns 1 and 2.

Seconds later, after a brief period of sheet metal grinding against sheet metal, Mears responded, "I wasn't clear."

It was a funny exchange, but not to Kasey Kahne, whose car was destroyed as a result. Or to Bowyer, who still was blaming Waltrip for the damage that may have kept him from contending for a win instead of fighting for seventh to move up a spot to 12th in the standings.

Kahne took the hardest hit, falling three spots to 14th in the standings with two races left before the 12-car playoff is set.

I love racing at Bristol. It's a great place with great fans. It's just a bad deal for us tonight.

-- Kasey Kahne

"It's disappointing because we're going to take a hit in the point standings, but that's the risk you run here at Bristol," said Kahne, who has lost six spots in the past two races. "I love racing at Bristol. It's a great place with great fans. It's just a bad deal for us tonight."

It was a great deal for the 165,000 fans who came to Thunder Valley hoping to see carnage. The multicar accident that took out Jeff Burton on Lap 195 was reminiscent of the days before the track was resurfaced.

"Typical Bristol wreck," said Burton, who held onto fifth in the standings despite finishing next to last. "But if you look in front of you, you tend not to hit stuff. I was trying to be smart and cautious, but it didn't do me any good. I got wrecked anyhow."

That's like the Bristol of old, when Dale Earnhardt spun out Terry Labonte on the last lap for the victory.

The new surface hasn't ruined racing here after all. Sure, drivers can't spin each other around with the ease of the old car, but there were just as many tire marks on the side panels as ever.

Chase contenders drove like they were trying to win instead of survive for a good finish as they appeared to be a year ago.

"We had a lot going on last year," series director John Darby said. "There was a little apprehension with the track. Obviously, what the drivers have learned is you can race scraping the paint off the wall or you can race off the bottom, and they're using that.

"What the facility has done with the replacement of the track, it's kept all the excitement that Bristol generates. That was one heck of a race."

Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition, couldn't have agreed more as he choked down a turkey sandwich following the meeting with Busch.

"Tonight was one of the best races I've seen at Bristol in an awful long time," he said. "The racetrack is coming into its own right now with the new track starting to take rubber."

David Ragan must be figuring it out. He spun out three times on his own a year ago. He went unscathed on Saturday to finish 10th and move within 12 points of 12th place in the standings.

Jeff Gordon, who finished fourth to strengthen his position of ninth in points, never thought Bristol went anywhere.

"To me, it's a different Bristol," the four-time Cup champion said. "But it's just as exciting."

Yes, there was plenty of passing like a year ago. But there was a lot more bumping and a lot more frustration, all the things that make Bristol so unique.

"It's pretty hard to pass," Matt Kenseth said. "Even though there's two lanes ... the guy on the outside has such an advantage. The guy on the bottom gets too loose and you just can't get around him. That leads to frustration, so the bottom guy tries to move the top guy.

"You had a lot more of that than I remember 'cause everybody had their cars driving better now that we've been here four times."

So it was wrong to bury Bristol so quickly.

The racing still can be good.

"The fans see more true racing on the surface, rather than give-and-take and nudging people out of the way for every position," Edwards said. "So I think this is better. You're going to see exciting races here for a long time to come."

Welcome back, Bristol.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.